28 November 2011

The Irony of Simplicity

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a methodologist in possession of a Harvard chair must be in want of popular influence. But it strains credibility to assert that the ternary plot is easily intuitive. The sadder truth, however, is that it is still easier to understand than a table of multinomial logit results. (When not writing this blog, I occasionally write a dissertation.)

A Constitutional Perspective on Power and Our Populist Moment

The conversation between Conor and the PM has got me thinking about Hobbes and power and how to make sense of its abuses at UC-Davis and in Oakland some weeks ago.

It seems to me that the architectural design of our regime itself speaks to the point, and the gradual loss of commitment to that design explains both the popular movements of our time and the institutional responses to them.

The PM says that we are more dangerous in uniform than out of it, and he's surely right that "absolute power corrupts absolutely." The whole theory of Madison's republicanism can be said to be based on precisely this recognition of human fallibility when it comes to wielding the power of the regime. The technological means for a Third Reich or a Hiroshima were not yet imaginable to the American framers, and they would not have been able to conceive of the devastating power office holders now employ. But even before we invented the power to kill en masse, they held power to be a problem, trusting the executive especially a good deal less than Hobbes trusts his sovereign.

Set deep in the foundations of the American psyche, John Winthrop and his Puritan followers emphasized our imperfect and imperfectable knowledge, our inability to completely master and govern ourselves, our needs, our lacks, our intellectual and moral insufficiencies. Ours, they taught, is a broken world of sin - not due to malevolence or willful evils, but the opposite - our myopia and incomprehensions would frustrate even and especially our attempts to do good.

Niebuhr makes the point in The Irony of American History that Puritanism reached its final expression not in American religious life, but in the forms of American government. We usually think of America as a secular place, where there is a “separation of church and state.” But Niebuhr understood that America’s Lockean institutions were themselves informed by a religious world-view. According to the American Constitution, nodes of power are to be separated and opposed to one another. They are to be separated at the national level by creating institutional incentives and shared responsibilities that would force the executive, judicial and legislative branches to govern each other, and the most powerful among these, the legislative, the framers divided further into two chambers. The framers start from the assumption that men are motivated by “interest,” which is to say that every person to occupy constitutional office will be fallen and broken and will be moved by pride to expand their own dominion. The offices must be made to “check and balance” each other because we can't fully "check and balance" ourselves. Lockean institutions are designed to accommodate Calvinist selves.

As fractious and divided as the nation was during the ratification debates, the psychological centrality of interest was almost universally assumed to be true. On this point, the Anti-Federalists departed from the Federalists only in harboring hope that interest could governed by our better angels if political power were even more widely dispersed, more truly federal, local, and even democratic. They aspired more to the ancient model of democratic alternation and were wary of representation and the rule of trustees. For the Anti-Federalists, local government allowed for more opportunities for civic participation, and participating in government was the great school of citizenship, where men learned to rule and be ruled in turn.

Federalism itself is the second way in which the American framers were wary of political power. It was to be not only shared among the branches of national government, but federalized, decentralized, shared laterally amongst states and the national government. Much has recently been made of the alternative voice in American political thought -- emphasizing the polyphony of American political thought -- and rightly so. It's true enough that the Federalists sought more centralized power than the Anti-Federalists, but both were wise enough to see that centralized power could be a threat.

Ours was designed as a regime of institutions inspired by Locke, by Montesquieu, infused with a religious sensibility, all of which amounted to a rejection of the Hobbesian optimism about the sovereign. Conor is right about that. Axiom number one for Hobbes is that without an arbiter that is empowered to restrain each party, the parties will always be potentially at war, or in Conor's memorable phrase, violent conflict will always be "a lurking logical possibility." Because there is no arbiter to restrain the sovereign were he to feel threatened by the commonwealth or its members, the sovereign stands in relation to the commonwealth as the frightened, neurotic individuals stood in relation to each other before the commonwealth was instituted. The American insight is to restrain and frustrate centralized power because, frankly, the framers did not trust that it can be responsibly used.

Although Americans tend not to think in these terms any longer, they do feel that something is not quite right. So it is that a populist movement from the right, decrying government centralization in Washington (at the expense of the states) and in the White House (at the expense of the Congress and Courts) is matched by a populist movement from the left, decrying the financial centralization in a few banks. The Tea Partiers and the Occupiers, though divided on a range of social issues, both carry the flag of decentralization. The disproportionate use of force levied against the Occupiers at UC-Davis and in Oakland and elsewhere is precisely the kind of force our regime was designed to restrain.

This leads me to conclude that the moment is ripe for a mature reconsideration of and renewal to our commitment to the Constitution. In my view, the uses of power and populism we see around us neither warrant a progressive wish to transcend the Constitution, nor do they warrant the the bizarre necromancy of some of the Constitution's biggest fans. In recognizing that the same centralization of power our regime is dedicated to dispersing is the source of popular protest and the institutional response to that protest, we should be moved to recognize the Constitution's lasting wisdom.

- A Citizen of Rochester -

21 November 2011

The vanity of power

Following yesterday's discussion of Linda P.B. Katehi, TalkingPointsMemo reports that Katehi is staying on. Her explanation: "The University needs me." This is far from the best way for her to address the situation. The Regents and the President of the UC system should take action now.

20 November 2011

War made the state, and the state university made war

Conor comments on the situation at UC-Davis, in which police dispatched by the University's chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, tear-gassed peaceful demonstrators.

You can see the video here: As the authors at the Edge of the American West comment, what is most chilling is that the campus police officer "looks utterly nonchalant, for all the world as if he were hosing aphids off a rose bush. The scene bespeaks a lack of basic human empathy, an utter intolerance for dissent, or perhaps both."

Conor argues that this shows that we should not believe that institutions ameliorate violence:

None of that means, of course, that police brutality is excusable in the context of positive liberal laws like ours. We can certainly expect and demand better, even if we understand—with Hobbes—that such violence is always lurking.

Indeed, this sort of incident actually shows why Hobbes’ prescriptions don’t match his critique. Humans are just as violent when they take the reins of power. We are every bit as dangerous when wearing a police uniform as when we are outside a community of laws.

In the universe of American political thought, I would argue that there are two responses to this. The first, catalogued ably recently by Radley Balko, is the view that Conor is wrong: that we are much more dangerous when in uniform than when we are individuals. And the twentieth century supports this view quite well. Without uniforms, and the vast organizations they represent, there is no possibility of a Holocaust, of a Great Leap Forward, of a Hiroshima.

I do not imply a moral equivalence among the regimes responsible for those acts. But it is both trivially true that they could not have taken place without states (no individual or voluntary collective could carry out such mobilizations of resources) and more profoundly true that we cannot debate the moral equivalence of such acts without ascribing agency and intentionality to institutions (the "United States" launching a nuclear attack on "Japan" is more than just a shorthand for referring to the actions of certain crew members of a certain plane dropping a certain bomb on a certain town; it is also reflective of how our analytic categories constrain and permit judgment). In any case, however, it is clear that the resources of violence available to individuals within institutions are vastly, astronomically, greater than the resources for violence available to individuals outside of institutions.

The second response to Conor is to take the first response as granted and to ask why some massive institutions (Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia) are far more coercive than other massive institutions (Canada, Norway). And this is important, because the answer suggests why we find relatively modest applications of force by campus police officers against students far more shocking (or, maybe, just as shocking) as the routine application of coercion by "real" police officers elsewhere. After all, at least part of this story has to do with something that Hobbes never considered fully, and that is the issue of legitimacy--of the right to rule in the sense that Weber defined the term.

It is not the actual fact of violence that should concern us. It is the illegitimacy of that coercion. And illegitimate use of force must be met with both moral condemnation and actual signals of disapproval from the community.

Thus, it is less productive for us to discuss the general tendencies to violence of the Hobbesian state, and far more productive for us to call for the obvious: that the Regents of the University of California, Davis campus, should fire Linda P.B. Katehi, Chief of Campus Police Annette Spicuzza, and Lieutenant John Pike of the UC-Davis Campus Police immediately, for cause, and without a severance package.

11 November 2011

Should professors have coaches?

Really, this was a terrible show. It lasted for nine seasons.
In The New Yorker, Atul Gawande suggests professionals need coaches.

Over at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, Andrew Gelman is more skeptical. He writes:

But I don’t know if this could work for statisticians (or for physicists or computer programmers or various other technical jobs). I’m sure I could benefit from advice—if I had Don Rubin or Xiao-Li Meng or Jennifer Hill on a string to answer my statistics questions at all time, I’d be in much better shape (this is not possible so I have partitioned off areas in my brain to simulate Rubin and Meng and Hill—it’s not as good as the real thing but it actually can be helpful, sort of like those old Windows emulators they used to have on Macs)—but that sort of advice and feedback seems a bit different from coaching, somehow.

Gelman misses this one. He asks whether Gawande is "getting coached on his reporting and writing," and sets this up as a test about whether Gawande is really serious about getting feedback on his "core competency"(to add to his list of business jargon).

Let me assure that the answer is yes.

Gawande is a professional writer, but the principal difference between professional and amateur writers is that some institution has chosen to publish Gawande. That entails not merely giving him a check for the essays he writes but also imposing stringent editorial standards. And there are few magazines where that editorial intrusion is more rigorous or searching than The New Yorker.

Gelman might object that this is not quite "coaching," in the sense that it is an essential part of the process of being a magazine writer. But, actually, it is Gawande's volitional coaching--privately engaging the services of a senior surgeon to give him tips--that is the deviation from the essence of coaching. Players don't get to choose their coach, but their coach does get to choose who plays. The incentive structure is no less clear in journalism. The principal difference between the coaching he receives as a surgeon and that he receives as a writer is that in only the latter is it required. (Oddly, the field in which the professional is subject to review is not the one where his mistakes could kill.)

That underscores the difference between volitional and institutional coaching. Peers cannot criticize their peers too strongly without incurring too many costs. But a coach hired by a client who wants searching criticism can, at least in principle, say things that peers cannot. And because their relationship is based on a fee-for-service model, the coach-client relationship is, again in principle, easier to maintain than the peer-to-peer relationship. After all, you can't fire your peers, but you can fire your coach.

Churchill's secret of leadership

Churchill's wartime recollections:

All I wanted was compliance with my wishes after reasonable discussion.

Serving on University committees has made me distinctly more charitable to this point of view.

10 November 2011

You are a little blog bearing up a corpse

(Those among you who are fans of Epictetus will get the reference.)

A delayed shout-out to a great new blog dealing with Stoicism, philosophy, and modernity. Applied Stoicism ought to be more popular than it is.

It's a good day ... for data science!

Despite the lab coat, he's more of an engineer than a scientist.
Kaiser Fung recounts three hours in the day of the life of a "data scientist." The post triggers a few observations.

First, what Fung doesn't mention is that this is actually fun. Screwing around with computers is a perfect example of nonwork, in that it is labor-intensive enough to feel like you're being productive while having no actual value added. (Much like blogging!) But unlike much nonwork (in the real world, examples include answering the phone, answering emails, going to meetings, and so forth), writing code is like solving a whole bunch of logic puzzles all at once. And the frequently (apparently) arbitrary relationship between success and effort makes you feel like a lab rat in one of those experiments that prove that random rewards are more successful at generating effort than rules-based ones.

Second, the term "data scientist"is a little misleading. Just as most mad scientists are actually mad engineers, so too are most data scientists really data engineers, at least day-by-day. (There's nothing wrong with that; engineers get things to work! The software engineers who built Google's search functions are praiseworthy!) But note what Kaiser is doing: he's moving data from X to Y. No hypo testing, just problem-solving.

Third, I'm again reminded of the difference in practice between the life of quants, quals, and squishes. (In classic social science tradition, I'm breaking up the dialectic and calling this progress.) Quants spend their time wrestling with datasets, which is often way harder than quals or squishes believe. Quals spend their time wrestling with cases, which is often much harder than quants or squishes admit. And squishes spend their time figuring out the substrate of reality, which confuse quants and quals who simply assume that problem away.

But at the end of the day, the quant approach is actually more collaborative than quals or squishes admit, and the qual/squish approach is more solitary. Because so many quant problems are engineering in nature, two (or more) heads are better than one--and once a given problem is cracked, the answer is open to everyone immediately. But squishes and quals have to rely on a lot of tacit knowledge. It's very easy for me to consult with someone on a Stata problem. It's very, very hard for me to consult even on a qual topic I know well, like the Nixon administration.

09 November 2011

Using "reshape" to generate country-year data in Stata

The other day, I observed a colleague creating a country-year dataset by hand--using Excel to type out a list of countries and then manually add years. It took her eight or ten hours.

This is a little inefficient.

So I thought I'd give a very quick tutorial in how to do this in 10 seconds.

First, open Stata and create a new file. (For convenience, I'll refer to this as "country.dta".)

Create one new variable, called "country."

Populate this with some arbitrary number of country names--"Belgium","France","Germany", whatever. Since this is an example, four or five will be fine.

Next, create some number of years, like so:

gen year1960=1960
gen year1961=1961
gen year1962=1962

You should now have four variables--"country", "year1960", "year1961", and "year1962"--of which the latter three should be identical. To see your data, type


Now, type

reshape long year, i(country)
drop _j

Once again, type


to see your data.

You'll see that you now have your data arrayed in country-year format. 

This is a toy example, but it's got obvious advantages. For more on the tools that went into this, see the UCLA computing site or type 

help reshape

from the Stata command line.